After bouncing back from their season-opening loss against Stanford, Northwestern was able to secure a win against non-conference opponent UNLV this past weekend in its first home game. The ‘Cats will look to continue this momentum into Big Ten play, which kicks off this Saturday at Ryan Field with Michigan State. Here are the keys to the 2019 iteration of the Spartans:
MSU has a history with the ‘Cats
In other words, the Spartans have reason beyond their soul-crushing 10-7 home loss to Arizona State last week to come out swinging this Saturday. Northwestern has beaten MSU three consecutive times, with the teams playing annually as the designated constant cross-divisional matchup by the powers that be (Wildcat fans aren’t complaining).
The last time the Spartans traveled to Ryan Field, in 2017, the game went into triple overtime before Northwestern eventually came out on top as part of back-to-back-to-back extra period wins. Despite two evenly played contests, the Wildcats took care of Brian Lewerke and co. by double digits in East Lansing during both the 2016 and 2018 seasons, mainly thanks to an advantage in execution.
Clayton Thorson, Northwestern’s protagonist across the streak, may be gone, but his counterpart in green and white is back and hoping to avoid what would be an incredible fourth straight loss to NU. Simply speaking, the Spartans are still searching for a way to get over the hump against the Wildcats, and are hoping that fresh blood at quarterback will create the advantage they need.
Defense (especially against the run) is their strength, to say the least
The Michigan State run defense has continued to consistently impress for years at this point. In 2018, they led the nation with an average of just 77.9 rushing yards allowed per game. And despite an embarrassing loss to Arizona State this past weekend, the defense still looks like they will live up to expectations during 2019. Which, for a Northwestern team that could still be missing Isaiah Bowser, might prove to be a problem.
Last season, the Wildcats didn’t need their run game to propel them to victory against Sparty’s fearsome front, with Thorson getting the job done through the air. If Northwestern wants to get conference play started on the right foot, Hunter Johnson may have to repeat the feat, though the MSU pass defense is no cakewalk either.
And offense most definitely is not a strength. But it is getting better!
On the other side of the things, the Michigan State offense has struggled to produce in the past. Last year, they were ranked 125th out of 129th in scoring (quite a contrast to the aforementioned top-ranked run defense). But things seem to be looking up. Besides the Arizona State catastrophe, during which the offense only scored seven points despite gaining more than 400 yards, the Spartan offensive unit has showed more potential this year.
Lewerke has been solid under center, throwing for 797 yards in 68 completions so far this season. Redshirt freshman Elijah Collins has exploded at running back, rushing for a career-high 192 yards against Western Michigan. These two, along with other standouts such as Darrell Stewart Jr. — who tallied 10 catches and 185 yards against Western Michigan — are turning the Spartan offense into something the ‘Cats should worry about.
In back-to-back matchups, Northwestern has utilized perhaps the purest form of their bend-but-don’t break defense against an offense that is well-suited for it, allowing less than 20 points in regulation of each contest. Though the Spartans have improved their personnel in some regards, the Wildcats will look to follow the blueprint of the Sun Devils and hope that keeping them out of the end zone, at least for the most part, proves to be enough to win.